Frida Kahlo: the stare that has captivated the world for decades

By Gabbie Lynch

Artwork by Ton Peelen

The name elicits the same reaction as it did when she was alive and painting over sixty years ago. The world is screaming for Frida Kahlo; the flamboyant Mexican artist with the infamous strong brow and harrowing stare. She is a fashion icon, a face often adopted by feminism and painted some of the most recognisable surrealists works of the 20th century. Frida Kahlo has transcended time. When I walked down my local shopping street, I counted five stores with images of Frida in their shop fronts. In the window of the local charity store was a mannequin mimicking the emblematic Frida look; the dark hair in braids, tied on top of the head and decorated with colourful flora and a bold blouse with a traditional Mexican style skirt to match. Surely enough, on the mannequin’s shoulder was a toy monkey, sitting ever so calmly, as it appears to in her 1945 self portrait. 

So why suddenly has the world become obsessed with Frida? Are we fascinated by the woman who faced one tragedy after another and found refuge in her paintings? Or are we misled by the media and misrepresentations of Frida in popular culture which fail to convey the complexities and flawed nature of this Mexican artist?

Like many of the great artists, Frida Kahlo endured a life of tragedy. The well-known events of her life are characterised by points of intense suffering. When she was seven she caught poliomyelitis which permanently damaged her right leg and foot. Aged 18, a major bus accident resulted in serious internal and spinal injuries – so serious, doctors expected her to die. Later, she married Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, whom she called the other tragedy of her life. Their marriage was characterised by infidelity, obsession, divorce and re-marriage. She endured physical pain throughout her, which surgery failed to alleviate. In 1954, she died at only 47 years of age.

There is a tendency to romanticise the tragic life of Frida, almost as if she played no active role in shaping it. Her artworks are falsely understood as the inevitable response to her acute and constant state of suffering. The enigmatic glaze and non-smiling pose she adopted in her self-portraits and photographs emphasise the attractive image of the artist enduring the sufferings of life. It is undeniable that Frida suffered more than her fair share of tragedy, but to neglect the obsessive, inspired and often self-destructive nature of the artist herself is to loose sight of the “true” Frida, if such a phrase exists.

Frida Kahlo’s life, whilst marked by tragedy, was also characterised by a significant time of change in Mexico. She lived during the Mexican Revolution; a period fostered by a proud nationalism and inspired by Mexico’s Indigenous art and culture. The country was in a flux of artistic expression, inspiring many artists including Frida’s husband, Diego Riveria. Diego had a significant impact on the life of Frida. She once said “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the train, the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” Something in Diego compelled Frida. She escaped tragedies that doctors believed would kill her and yet the one tragedy she could have controlled; she became the ultimate victim. When she died, Diego openly announced that he was the cause of her torment: “If I ever loved a woman, the more I loved her, the more I wanted to hurt her. Frida was only the most obvious victim of this disgusting trait”. One questions why Frida never left Diego. He cheated on her with her sister, Christina, and emotionally manipulated her. Frida, however, did much the same to Diego. As a couple, they were a tempestuous storm, growing larger and more powerful as they continued to bring out the worst in each other.

It is true that Frida Kahlo was the iconic female heroine. Her self-portraits depict the face of a brave and enduring woman. But she was much more than this and her presence in pop culture – that is, the tacky images of her printed on T-shirts, coffee mugs and key chains – fails to capture the real legacy of Frida Kahlo. Frida lived an alternative life, she resisted against everything society expected of her. She was a notorious partier, became obsessive in her thoughts and relationships and painted self-portraits that were raw, confronting and yet compelling. So to limit her to a mainstream aesthetic is to practice everything she resisted against.

Next time you walk past a shop front with one of Frida’s self-portraits perched in the window, step into her strong and steady gaze. She glares beyond the frame, and whilst observing the workings of the world she has never once flinched. This is the Frida we should be celebrating. The woman who, despite carrying deep emotional and physical scars, let animals rest across her shoulders and maintained total composure, with a stare that has captivated the world for decades.

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